October is nearly spent and what do I have to show for it? Not much that I can point to, that I can hold up and say: Here, this is what I have been doing. This is what I made of these days of colorful leaves and cool winds and squirrels burying nuts in the garden, these mornings of wet pavement and afternoons of weak, beloved sun.
Aren’t we all just holding our breath, wondering when we can exhale?
I wake in the night, every night, sometimes sucking air, sometimes with limbs clenched, always the remnants of struggle dreams floating away from me. Always needing to pee, and then calculating if I can tend that basic bodily need without waking the dogs. If it’s early enough that I know they won’t stir and start barking, I stumble across the hall, not as stiff and unsteady on my feet as old Rocky–but I see how things are starting to go. When I return to bed, I wait for the flash of heat to roll through my body, and then I breathe the way the personal trainer taught me: inhale through my back (1, 2, 3, 4) and exhale through my diaphragm, ribs shifting down and back (4, 3, 2, 1). Sometimes it works, and sometimes I pull up a Times crossword on my iPad and hope it will lull my brain, not unlike the way desperate parents will drive a crying baby around dark streets, hoping the car’s quiet rhythms will soothe it back to sleep.
In a moment of optimism last week I bought two skeins of chunky yarn and cast stitches onto fat needles. I’m not making anything in particular. Maybe a pillow cover. It’s not about the product. It’s about breathing, and movements like breath: in, up, around, down, over, in, up, around, down, over. It’s a thing to occupy my hands and mind at the end of the day while giving the dogs some time on my lap and watching TV that doesn’t require much focus.
I haven’t mailed any postcards, made any phone calls, sent pizza to those standing in long lines for hours waiting to vote. I haven’t even filled out my own ballot yet. (But I will. I always do.) I give my extra resources to work, to procuring and setting up and pushing out materials that might help children who might, in some future I may or may not be part of, make good choices when they sit at kitchen tables and fill in small circles, or stand in long lines, or in some other way participate in something that is or resembles a democracy. Lately, every day feels like one long breath: Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed is the start of a long inhale; my morning routines–feed the dogs, drink tea, shower, dress, read–are how I fill the lungs of it; and then the rest of the hours are a long, slow exhale (4, 3, 2, 1). By the time I pick up the needles, there’s little oxygen left to expel.
Sometimes this breathing feels like a kind of faith. Most days, it feels like it takes all I’ve got to keep that inhale/exhale going. Some days, lately, it’s taken more than I’ve got. (Hello migraine, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…)
When I focus on breathing in the middle of the night, I can sometimes catch the moment sleep starts to sneak in. The colors behind my eyelids shift, fracture, turn kaleidoscopic. I try not to notice. Too much attention sends it running and there I am again, hamster-wheeling in the dark, wondering if I should turn on the light to read or fill in tiny boxes with letters, or if I should try the breathing again. (1, 2, 3, 4) If the breathing works, I won’t really know until I wake that it’s worked. (4, 3, 2, 1) I can only be aware of success after the fact.
Isn’t that so often the case?
Some days I wonder if the breath of my days has put me into some kind of sleep, if I’m just dreaming my way through this month, this season, this year. (This life? Could that be true?) I wonder if the steady rhythm of these days is lulling me into something without me even really knowing it, like all the babies in the backs of cars whose cries finally stop.
But what can you do? As we’ve been told, it is what it is, and we have to keep things moving.
This weekend I’ll pick up a load of firewood and stack it behind the garage. I’ll take down what’s left of the tomato plants, gather up the onions still nestled in the bed, tuck garlic starts in to the soil. I’ll soothe Rocky when he needs soothing (more and more now), and cook a pot of some kind of soup. We’ll watch a bad movie or two, and think about starting a puzzle (that we probably won’t start). I’ll clean toilets and fold laundry and wipe down the kitchen cabinets, as I do every weekend. I’ll try to catch up on work (or I won’t.) And, if it is all just a dream, I guess I’ll be glad it’s not one in which I need to take a final for a class I never attended, or am somehow living again with people I thought I’d broken free of, or am running through air that sucks at my legs like quicksand as I’m trying to flee something that wants to hurt me.
Over a three month period in 1981, when I was seventeen, I attended three funerals on my mother’s side of the family. This was my introduction to grief.
We didn’t talk about grief. There were tears at the funerals, but not many before them and none that I can remember after. Communal tears, that is. One of the funerals was for my beloved grandpa, and I cried for months over that loss, but always privately.
Maybe it was my family’s ways, or maybe it was the time; Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying had been published only 12 years earlier, and I think we didn’t have the same understanding then that we do now about grief. More and more, I understand that seminal events in my life happened a significant amount of time ago–long enough to be part of an earlier era, an time qualitatively different from the one we’re all now in. Living with a young adult will do that to you.
On the morning my daughter leaves for her new life on a different continent, I see a garbage bag on the floor of her room, next to items that look like they could be trash. “Oh,” I say, “is that stuff to throw out?”
“No,” she says. “Those are my protest supplies.” And then I really see the items: gloves, safety goggles, duct tape, a water bottle. When I was 22, I didn’t know what to do in the event of getting tear-gassed, but she does. I attended my first protest at 25, and it felt more like a parade than a meaningful political action; I wondered what the point was. Times have changed.
I also didn’t really know how to grieve, despite my three funerals at seventeen. Maybe that is why, this past year, I have been grieving all the losses from that year until now. Deaths, but also other kinds of loss, too. Loss of geography, loss of dreams, loss of beauty and agility, loss of relationships and hopes and beliefs and faith. Loss of ways of living. Living through late middle age in the midst of myriad forms of breakdown will do that to you.
I have been crying for weeks, tears coming over everything and nothing, beyond my ability to control. As a child, I could always control my tears, and I almost never let anyone see me cry. I didn’t cry often, and I took some pride in that. I remember being both mystified and somewhat scornful at my mother’s softness, so near the surface that she cried at such things as the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember looking over at her when the fictional news team huddled together and sobbed, only to see tears rolling down her face. I poked fun at her for that. “But it’s so sad!” she said.
Yesterday, after writing the previous paragraph, I watched that episode again, and, like my mother before me, I cried. At twelve, I’d had no context for the loss landing on Mary, Lou, and Murray. Now, I do.
Even at seventeen, I didn’t really understand what I was losing, what had been lost, though I sensed something of it. The day after the fourth funeral, I sat in my English class and listened to my teacher talk about asteroids that could hit the earth and end all of life as we know it.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “what does anything that we do matter?” I felt so weary, so numb. Even my resilient family had struggled to get through a third funeral, and I couldn’t stop seeing the faces of my cousins who had lost their 40something dad to a heart attack.
The teacher made a comment about me being a fatalist and shifted the discussion. I don’t remember how or what he talked about next because I started to shake, and then I couldn’t stop, and then tears started, and I was mortified and frozen and didn’t know what to do or how to get out of the unthinkable situation I was in.
“Can you take her somewhere?” I heard him ask my best friend, and she led me to the hallway and we sat there for the rest of class, until my body slowly calmed, until the bell rang and I could return and get my books without having to have everyone stare at me. I wiped my eyes before retrieving them, and then I went to my next class. None of us–my friend, my teacher, any of my classmates, or me–ever talked about what happened.
On my daughter’s last morning at home, we talk about what love is, what it means to love someone. It’s a topic we’ve visited more than once since she came back to me in May. I have tried to explain, and to understand myself, why I love the people I do, and what love means to me, and why I want them in my life, close to me–even if we have differences, even if they have at times hurt me. Not so long ago, confronting my history with romantic love, I wondered in a therapist’s office if I might be incapable of love, if I even know what love is.
“Are there people in your life that you will always care for, no matter what they do?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I answered, without hesitation, a list of those people filling my head. “Then you know how to love,” he said. “You know what it is.”
From the moment I picked my daughter up at the airport in May, I knew that whatever we were going to have in our time together would be impermanent. The plan was never for her to stay. In my social media feeds I see friends with young adult children who have not moved away. They live nearby, and their parents regularly post photos with their children and grandchildren doing all the kinds of mundane things I long to do with my children in the day-to-day of life: Attending games and performances, picking out pumpkins, eating dinners, celebrating birthdays. I am so envious of these friends, who have what I, because of my own choices, haven’t had with my parents, and what I am now not likely to get with my daughter, because of hers.
I know all about the relationship between suffering and attachment. Maybe in my next life I will learn how to love without attachment, but I don’t know if I can in this one. I don’t know if I really want to.
There were so many gifts in these months we got, this unexpected time. Perhaps the biggest one was an opportunity to learn again, more deeply, that everything is impermanent. When I cried at the thought of her impending departure–which I did, frequently, almost from the time she arrived–I wasn’t mourning just the loss of the alternate life I dream of in which we live closer together, but also of all the lives we’ve already had and no longer do. I have grieved over not just an anticipated loss of the young woman she is, but also the earlier passing of all the girls she once was: the baby who laughed with delight when she discovered her feet, the toddler who worked and worked at learning how to dribble a ball, the child whose favorite color was rainbow, the teenager who mapped her future in color-coded spreadsheets. They are all gone, along with the lives we lived when they were here. To the list of Graces now gone I can add another: the young adult who worked remotely from the back bedroom during the pandemic, and sipped cocktails with me on warm summer nights, and woke up early for long zoom dates with her boyfriend in a time zone 9 hours different from ours, and argued with me about communism and policing and relationships, and cradled her old, dying dog with a tenderness I hope she might someday extend to me, if a time comes when I have difficulty finding my feet or knowing where I am. She is gone now, or going, and I will never have her–the person she’s been these past months–back.
After the summer of 1981, my family was never quite the same again. How could we have been? That pow-pow-pow of grief changed all of us. I didn’t understand that then, the way I do now. I thought I was only missing the people who no longer sat at our holiday tables. I didn’t know that I was also losing an earlier version of all who remained, and of the family we’d once been. Many of my tears this summer have been for that earlier family, which exists now only in memory. I miss us so much.
I’ve been learning that grieving can be a long time coming. Or maybe that it’s a thing that’s never really done.
I have a recurring dream in which I’ve lost a season. It’s usually a spring dream, and–somehow, impossibly–it’s the end of summer. But, wait, I’ll think in the dream. It can’t be time to go back to school. Where did the summer go? I’ll think of all the things I wanted and didn’t get to do, and I feel panicky and cheated. Then I’ll realize I’m dreaming, and that I have not, in fact, lost the summer, and relief washes over me. One day in Grace’s last week here, I got disoriented about where I was in time, the way I do in the dream. For a moment, I lost what season we are in. Something made me feel like it was still summer, and I had to tell myself: No, it’s October. It’s not summer any more. But then it felt like it couldn’t be October, because I hadn’t really had summer, just like in the dream.
I understand my confusion. The whole summer felt like a bubble in which we were all suspended in some time out of time. Having my daughter back in the ways I did, after having earlier let her go, while we both prepared ourselves for what’s coming next, felt like simultaneously living in the past, present, and future. Where were we in time? Who were we? Everywhere and nowhere. Everyone we’ve ever been and no one we’ve ever been and everyone we’ll someday be.
The day she left was unseasonably warm. After returning from the airport, I pulled spent tomato plants from their box and filled the compost bin with cedar branches Cane had trimmed from the tree that overhangs my shed, sweating in the sun. That evening, I sat on a front porch with friends and we talked how we might continue to safely meet when the nights turn cold. It felt like a summer night.
But, the next morning I woke to rain and dark skies. The patio furniture was soaked when I put the dogs out to pee, and they stepped gingerly on the wet pavement. The power flickered off and then on again, while I worked on these words, and just like that, the season had undeniably changed.
When my children were babies I began writing poems after a long dry period. I’d thought I’d lost my capacity for writing poetry–too many demands and not enough resources–but somehow, amid mothering two babies and working full-time, I completed a book of poems.
Clearly, capacity wasn’t quite the issue. (Not to discount that. Lack of resources is a true barrier, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t. It was, and has always been, a factor for me.) What helped me overcome my capacity issues was a drive to record what we were living. I wanted to remember it, and I was afraid the memories would be lost in the blur of feeding and changing and grading papers and fatigue. Committing them to words committed them to continued existence; each poem became conduit to a specific memory I can now recall and relive, at any time.
The moments I wanted to pin to memory weren’t big ones. A nurse’s comment in the NICU, a bedtime bath, rocking a toddler back to sleep in the middle of the night, wondering if it might be the last time I’d do so. I had no fear of losing the bigger moments, but I wanted to capture the small ones in greater danger of being lost to a multitude of days.
As my daughter prepares to leave home again, in a different, more permanent way than she has before, in the midst of so many different kinds of fall, I’m feeling driven to purposefully remember again, to put moments and images into words. While I was awake in the middle of one of this past week’s nights, the phrase “exquisite pain” kept floating through my head. Earlier that night, we’d sat at the kitchen table, talkingtalkingtalking about her plans and what they do and don’t mean, about times with her grandparents, about choosing (or not) to play board games with children, about her hopes and intentions, about home renovations and what they’ve meant and mean to us, about red and green flags, rings, forms of marriage. Even earlier than that, we’d had tears and a coming to understanding over words I’d tossed out carelessly–except, of course, the feelings (neither mine nor hers) weren’t as much about the words as about so many other things, and as I sat at that table under its amber light in the waning of a very early autumn night, I could feel what I often don’t in the moment: That this would be a night that lives in my memory, a few hours extraordinary, in some part, for its ordinariness in the midst of the profound. I could see them fusing to a Before that I will long for in the coming After, the way I long for so many things now gone.
It has been a season of ordinary embedded in extraordinary, this time of pandemic and unrest, fire and smoke. As I anticipate her absence, it is the small, ordinary moments I have been hardly able to stand the thought of losing. When I look back over my life, it is seemingly unremarkable moments that rise to the surface and trigger the deepest grief: morning sun shining through my grandparents’ kitchen window and Paul Harvey’s tinny voice coming through the kitchen-counter radio as my grandpa spread butter on toast; sitting at a department store lunch counter with my grandma after an afternoon of shopping, fingers in my pocket playing with my first pot of lip gloss; a rainy Saturday afternoon snuggled into my dad’s recliner with a book in my hands, a fire burning in the fireplace and The Wide World of Sports theme song playing on the TV, feeling snug and happy and so glad not to be that skier tumbling over and over and over down a mountain in an agony of defeat.
Similarly, what I want to remember of this time are only snippets, quick snapshots of memory:
The Hannah Montana theme song playing in the room across the hall while I edit her graduation video.
Catching the moment the solar patio lights blinked on as we sat beneath them on a warm June night.
Shopping with G. for clothes at a vintage emporium filled with racks and racks of clothing originally sold in the decade she was born. “I didn’t own this exact dress, but I owned this dress,” I tell her, holding up a wide-wale corduroy jumper from Eddie Bauer, remembering the early-teacher selfI once was, when I was only three years older than she is now.
Sitting side by side on the couch at the end of an evening, each of us holding a dog swaddled in a blanket, rising oh-so-carefully and carrying them to their beds and hoping, as one does with infants, that they won’t stir and need to be soothed back to sleep.
Hearing the low murmur of her happy voice through the wall as she talks with her love, half a world away.
Stopping at McDonald’s on a Friday after picking her up from work and getting french fries and Cokes because it’s “Frie-day,” the car filling with her music and a salty-oily-sweet smellthat reminds me of her high school years.
I don’t have in me, right now, whatever it is that poetry requires. Maybe it’s because I’m 20 years older and it takes more out of me to process grief than joy. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to understand, in new ways this week, that we are in collapse. Or, that we have been in a long, slow collapse for most of my life.
(I remember an afternoon in the late 70s, in my grandparents’ living room on a bright day, a conversation in which my grandfather drew comparisons between the United States and the Roman empire. “All empires fall, Rita,” he told me. “I’m so old it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it very well could in yours.” I sat on the floor, picking at the pile of a soft, cream-colored rug, wondering what downfall would mean for us, thinking of Britain, which seemed to have come through the loss of their empire OK, and hoping that our fall could be more like theirs than, say, that of the Russians.)
The morning after the presidential “debate,” I read a piece that describes what collapse can look like. According to the writer, a Sri Lankan born in the early years of his country’s civil war, it looks pretty normal, for many people. It looks a lot like the collection of memories I shared several paragraphs back. In reading the piece, and thinking about it, though, I realize there are other moments in my memories of this summer, too, that I didn’t list above:
Noticing, on a walk one day in July, a couple in a broken down camper parked next to a grassy median dividing my neighborhood from a freeway onramp. Noticing, in September, exiting the freeway on my way back from getting groceries, that the median is now–like so many small, grassy places in the city–filled with tents, and the curb once empty except for the camper is now lined with cars.
Waking in the middle of a night when my daughter was out and seeing that she didn’t text to tell me she was home, and my body flooding with adrenalin as I shot from my bed. Noticing, as I moved down the hallway, that the light I’d left on for her had been turned off, but not believing that she was really home, OK, until I opened her door and saw her sleeping in her bed.
Driving downtown and seeing empty storefronts, boarded windows, and graffiti-covered buildings. Fighting the usual traffic and feeling sad to see another high-rise taking over the block that once housed our favorite food carts. Abandoning our quest to go to Powell’s because the line of mask-clad people waiting to get in stretched down the entire, block-long length of the building.
How leaves on my willow turned dark brown during the days of hazardous air, and how we tried to tell ourselves that maybe it was just the leaves getting ready to fall, the way leaves do. How, in the week of the debate that revealed–again, but in a slightly new way–what peril we are in, we noticed that there are now only green leaves on the tree and told ourselves that the tree is OK. (Though the ground beneath it was littered with the dried, now–black bodies of the ones that turned dark.)
How do you send your child half a world away when your country is in the midst of collapse? How–if she is so lucky to have that chance–do you not?
The words of the essay I read the morning after what was supposed to be a debate–in which the President signaled to the Proud Boys who marched in my city the previous weekend and who live all around me that he is aligned with them–ring painfully true:
I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.
In February I left my parents’ house knowing I would see them in March, but I didn’t, and now I don’t know when I will see them again. In March I left work knowing I wouldn’t see students and colleagues for a while, but would again, surely, before the end of the school year. Now I don’t know when I will see them again. In a week my child leaves me, and, while we have plans for when we will see each other again, I know now that I don’t know when I will see her again, and that my plans are as fragile–and perhaps already as dead–as those leaves that fell from my weeping tree.
But also: I have not been punched in the face. My parents live, my paychecks arrive, my child is going where she wants to go, healthy and safe. We eat meals under patio lights, made with food bought from stocked grocery stores, and we shop for clothing, watch TV, and fret about how to best care for our dying pets. We get takeout, and drink cocktails, and set alarms because we are living in a world in which being in particular places at particular times still matters.
I cry nearly every day, my body like a sieve, but the tears come and go swiftly, like thin clouds that intermittently block the sun. I have not been punched in the face (yet), but I do keep tripping and skinning my knees.
I can look back over the whole of my life and I see moments where I knew–I knew–things weren’t right, that the center wasn’t holding. For godsake, I became a high school English teacher because by the end of the Reagan era I was worried about the health of our democracy, and teaching children how to read, write, and think critically seemed the best contribution I could make with my particular set of talents and skills.
But there are all the other moments I can see, too. Sun streaming through windows, a child’s warm weight on my chest, words gathering around a kitchen table. That essay brought a kind of comfort. Yes, we are in collapse. We have long been in collapse. So: No, I am not crazy to see things the way I am seeing them. But also: Maybe collapse isn’t quite what I’ve feared. Aren’t all of our lives, always, in some kind of collapse, always moving from something they were to something else they will be? Isn’t everything always fleeting, our world always ending? Isn’t that the exquisitely painful truth of what it means to live?
There are many reasons to write, but this is mine: To capture the ordinary gorgeous of the everyday however I can, so we don’t forget what we once had, and can see what we still do.
On September 6, I wrote about radical acceptance and the peace I think it’s giving me. Maybe the universe thought I needed to be tested on this, or simply brought down a peg or two.
I don’t really think that. I don’t believe things work that way. But if they did, I’d tell myself that maybe that’s the reason the blows started coming fast and furious in the days since.
The fires and the 10 or so days of unhealthy air quality, some so toxic they were literally off the chart. The pain and struggle of so many colleague friends as we attempt to provide quality distance learning while managing grief over all that we’ve lost in our work with children, as well as that of so many friends supporting their children’s engagement with distance learning. Signs of continued (likely increasing) instability in the district I work for. My daughter’s work visa from Sweden finally coming through, which means that in weeks she will be leaving to live half-way around the world, with the hope of permanently making her life there. A jump in Rocky’s decline that’s forcing me to think long and hard about what’s best for him now, what constitutes “quality of life.” The return of insomnia and migraine. The continuation of our bungled response to the pandemic (hey, remember the pandemic?) that puts so many people (more than 40% of school workers, for example) in significant danger.
And then Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.
I sat on my couch on Friday afternoon, minutes after learning about Ginsberg’s death and seeing that McConnell had already put out a statement about how her seat will be filled before the end of Trump’s term, holding Rocky who had required holding all day, my head dull and achey because I’d worked all day on computer screens while nursing a migraine hangover, looking out to still-hazy air, thinking of all the people I love (including myself) who could lose rights and protections so hard-won, and of the absence that will soon, again, fill my home, an absence that will be caused in part by my daughter’s not unreasonable assessment that she can make a better future for herself in a different country, and of how I really want Rocky to be able to hang on until after his girl leaves but I don’t know if he can or if I should let him, and I could do nothing but sit and cry.
Things are terrible.
I look back at early 2016 me, who could see the possibility of what was coming (but tempered her words because she hoped that she was over-reacting) and somehow, naively, thought that civil dialogue could save us. 2016 me was kinda sweet in her hope and good intentions, and I regard her with some tenderness, but she was foolish and in denial, which made her unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.
We need to see clearly. We need to accept what is happening, what’s been happening–not just in the last two weeks or four years, but always.
When the rain came on Friday all I could see in my social media feeds were expressions of joy–which I get–but the air quality was still unhealthy. I was happy to see the rain, too, and grateful for the relief it was bringing, but the air quality was still unhealthy. We still could not safely go outside, and all I could see in all of us was how quickly and easily we’d become accustomed to a terrible new normal and how that made us nearly giddy for something that was still bad but not so terribly bad.
I want more than that for all of us.
We must see clearly, which means acknowledging contradictory truths: Yes, it was great that the air was better AND it was true that it was still not good. Since Friday morning, the rain has washed away the smoke and as I write these words, the air is now safe again. But we aren’t. The underlying causes of so many recent tragedies that seem beyond our control (fire, hurricane, derecho, pandemic deaths, continued injustices of all kinds that result in death) haven’t moved, and so we will return to them again and again and again until we address those causes.
This isn’t just about air quality. I suspect you know that, but I need to make sure that I am clear.
We need to grieve. We need to mourn. We need to cry because crying is part of accepting that things are terrible and we need to accept that things are terrible. Crying and feeling pain are not contradictory to radical acceptance. I think it’s essential to it, and our attempts to numb ourselves from pain is part of our undoing.
As news of Ginsberg’s death moved swiftly on Friday, I saw a slew of reactions along lines I’ve come to expect in the aftermath of any perceived political threat: “Of course they can’t fill her seat until we have a new President!” (Yes, they can, if enough Republican senators toe the party line, which they have done unfailingly for the past nearly four years.) “Now we really have to get out the vote!” (Sure, of course, but with respect to the question of the Supreme Court in general and Ginsberg’s seat in particular, that ship really left the dock in 2016.) Inspirational memes about coming back to fight another day. (Without any acknowledgement of how unfair the fight is, or how the unwritten but fundamental rules of engagement have changed, or how losing this fight might make future fights almost impossible to win.)
Initially these responses filled me with frustration because they remind me of 2016 me and because I cannot understand how anyone paying real attention now can think any of those responses are grounded in reality. Later, they filled me with sadness because that is just where a lot of people are, and it’s how they hang onto hope, and I have to accept that reality, too.
Please don’t misunderstand. I know that hope is crucial and that we are truly doomed if we all lose it, but it needs to be a critical hope. Our hope needs to be grounded in what is actually true right now today, not in what used to be true or what we wish or believe to be true–which means facing and feeling our sorrow and fear rather than pushing them away with half-truths that make us feel better. We need to accept the contradictory truths that things are terrible and that hope is reasonable so that we will take actions that might actually make a damn difference in our fight to make a better world, one in which we can all live and work without threat of death and raise children who believe they can make good lives for themselves on the soil from which they sprang.
The photos started showing up in my feed late Monday, neighborhoods shrouded in what looked like dark yellow fog. As the days have gone on, the photos have turned darker and darker, orange skies and thicker and thicker fog that wasn’t fog, but smoke. I tried to take my own photo, but I couldn’t capture it, the eeriness of the light.
It is getting harder and harder for me to hold up my end of the continual conversation I’m having with my daughter in which I argue that it is reasonable for her to have hope for her future.
The winds picked up on Tuesday, hot and strident. Wednesday I had to clear the driveway of branches before I could back the car out to drive my daughter to her new job. She’s supervising two kindergartners and a preschooler while their moms work from home, supporting their online school and keeping them safe. I’m glad she was able to graduate without student loan debt.
Thursday morning the vast expanse of dead lawn in my backyard was littered with leaves and branches. I noticed my neighbor watering his, and I figured I should do the same thing, though it felt like a futile sort of gesture.
I started sprinklers in the morning, picked up the kitchen, and got to work in my home office. I’ve settled into our not-normal new normal. I’ve been relishing what feels like an almost eerie calm these past few weeks. I had a little hiccup the first day or two back, but other than that I’ve been calm like I’ve never been calm in my life. Things that would have set my teeth grinding and my insomnia flaring in earlier years have rolled right off me.
Those things just don’t matter any more.
I mean, I suppose they do. Or they never did. Hard to say. They just don’t matter right now, though.
By Thursday afternoon my house was filled with smoke. My nostrils were parched, and my head felt not achey, but heavy. My eyes wanted to stay closed.
I am not in an evacuation zone, not even level one, but they aren’t far from me. If I lived in my old neighborhood on the mountain–the one in which my children grew through a nearly idyllic childhood, in what I presumed was likely the precursor to a similarly charmed adult life–I would have my car packed with all the things they recommend we pack, ready to go. Or, like some of my old neighbors, I might already be gone, unwilling to risk getting trapped in traffic on the highway that becomes choked with cars at the beginning and end of every three-day weekend.
By Thursday afternoon, I had to concede that our not-normal new-normal was no longer normal. Our school buildings were closing because of poor air quality and the numbers of staff who were in the process of evacuating their homes. Chromebook distribution would have to wait for another day.
And still, I felt calm.
I had a conversation with an old friend, and we talked about evacuation plans, our children’s futures, whether or not we should buy guns and learn how to use them.
If you’d told me even ten years ago that I would think seriously about buying a gun I’d have told you to shoot me now. That I would never want to live in a world where I’d find myself thinking seriously about whether or not I should buy a gun.
But Thursday was the day rumors started to fly that the wildfires in Oregon were set by antifa and BLM supporters (spread by far-right talk radio and dubious web sites and hordes of ignorant, scared people), and I read from a valid news source that our country’s vice president was planning to address a meeting of QAnon supporters as a campaign event, and my house filled with smoke, and our already-closed schools closed more, and it felt like a reasonable conversation to be happening.
“It’s not like I feel like I need one now,” I said to L. “But I don’t think we should wait until we feel like we need to do some things. I think if we wait until then, it might be too late.”
The first thought that came into my head upon waking Thursday morning was that I should photograph everything in the house that I might want to submit in an insurance claim, if we had to leave and the house burned. I know my house isn’t going to burn now, but that seems like it might be a good thing to have.
Still, I felt calm. I still feel calm.
I think Thursday was the day I went over an edge I’d been getting closer and closer to. It might have happened after I dropped my daughter off at work and drove down a street and noticed that the line of tents camped along it had grown over the past few days. Two years ago we reported such camps to some agency, and a few days later we’d see them disappear. Now I can’t remember how long they’ve been permanently there. They are everywhere, modern-day Hoovervilles.
“I think,” I said to L., “that whoever gets to look back on this year will see it as a turning point, the time in which a fundamental shift happened. I don’t think we are ever going to go back to what we think of as normal.”
Some day, if I get to be far enough away to look back, I might pinpoint the Thursday of my second week back to school in 2020 as the day I realized that all of the not-normal is the new normal. Not just wondered if it was, but accepted it, all of it: extreme weather, dangerous divisiveness, failing societal systems, rampant ignorance, growing inequality of all kinds, fear as a thrumming undercurrent of public life.
I’ve never been in a hurricane (yet), so I don’t really know what one is like, but I wonder if, the past few weeks, I’ve been hanging out in the eye of one. I know uprooted things are swirling all around me, just out of view, but I am in a calm place. I made pizza Thursday night and we watched the crime procedural my daughter is currently binging, and I knew that others I know were packing up or already gone from their homes and that whole towns have already burned to the ground, but we had a pleasant-enough evening.
I have been curious about this calm I seem to be floating in. I’ve been wondering about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder how much of my struggle in life has come from writhing around at the top of his pyramid, scratching to gain a foothold in self-actualization.
Self-actualization feels like a luxury these days. I am so damn grateful to feel and be secure right now in the middle of his triangle, grateful for love and belonging, knowing that I am safe and do not (today) have to worry about food and shelter. All of my thoughts these days are focused on love and belonging, identifying my people and keeping them close and caring for them. (But I’m keeping an eye on those more fundamental needs. Wouldn’t it be folly not to?) I miss taking for granted that those things were a given. Maybe, when I look back on this Thursday of the second week of the 20-21 school year, I will realize that what I accepted is that nothing is a given. What I accepted is knowing that it never was, and that I have been living most of my life in a beautiful illusion.
I never watched The Matrix. My children were young then, and the one time I tried to watch it I fell asleep. I know there’s something about a red pill and a blue pill, though, and one shows you reality and the other allows you to remain in some kind of ignorant (but controlled) bliss. Perhaps I’ll look back on this Thursday as the day I swallowed not a red pill or a blue one, but an orange one.
Perhaps the orange pill is the one we’ll need to have some hope for our collective future–one that allows us to see clearly and accept what we are seeing.
I don’t really know, and I’m out of time to ponder it. As my employer told me, school offices are closed, but we are expected to work from home and contact HR if we need to use any leave to deal with evacuation or fire issues. Time to get on with it.
As I returned to work this past week, I thought I was the only one crying every day.
Turns out I wasn’t.
Do you know how many different types of grief there are? There are a lot. Complicated, anticipatory, chronic, delayed, distorted, secondary, masked, collective. Oh, and normal. (There’s more, but I got tired of typing them. Grief is tiring.)
I found lists of types of grief when I went looking for information about “complex grief”–a term I thought I’d read somewhere along the way–but that seems to be the same as “complicated grief,” which is what mental health professionals use for grief so long-lasting and severe that it interferes with normal functioning.
I didn’t find a word for the kind I’ve been seeing and feeling, not just at work but all around me. I wanted a word for the grief that comes from bearing witness to all the varied types of grief being carried in those surrounding you, while carrying your own, while still carrying on with what is expected of you. If there were, I suspect a lot of us would be suffering from it.
I spent too much time on Friday and Saturday trying to write about this, but the draft I labored over has too many words. They exhaust me. (I took a long, deep nap on Saturday afternoon.)
The grief isn’t just about schools and teaching. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s all of it, the whole big ball of change and instability.
Friday night I watched a pre-2010 romcom, something I’ve been doing throughout this summer. These movies fill me with nostalgia for a pre-smartphone world. They fill me with nostalgia for a time when I took for granted things I didn’t even know I had, that I now know the contours of through the spaces made by their absence. I see many of those things in the subtext of these movies that are silly and unrealistic and fun and oblivious to so many, many things. (They are a lot like pre-2010 me.)
I watch them to escape. I watch them also to ground myself in what’s real now. I watch the beautiful (almost always white) actors and actresses (can we still use “actress”? probably not) who were born in the same decade I was dance their way through familiar cinematic choreography, and, in the cases when something in the plot hinges on communication that is not face-to-face, send an email or whip out a flip-phone and talk, and I cannot pretend that we are not now living in a fundamentally different time. The things that were so vitally important to them! The sources of their anguish! While watching, I usually Google the cast of the movie so I can see what they look like now. They almost all look old now in the ways I do, their beauty fading or faded. (My god, we were so beautiful! Why can’t we see, when we are young, how beautiful we are?) On my phone I see the physical manifestation of time passed, which grounds me in the truth that the era in which those movies were made and made sense is not the one in which I’m currently living.
I think the romcoms are part of my attempt to embrace radical acceptance. The opposite of radical acceptance is denial, and that’s a road I’ve followed to far more poor life choices than I’d like to admit.
Radical acceptance of the world we’re living in now is painful, but not as painful as it is to fight the world as though we’re still living in the one we once had (or thought we did).
Radical acceptance is bringing me a kind of peace and calm I’ve never experienced before.
Peace and calm does not mean I’m OK. It does not mean I’m happy. It does not mean I am without pain. (It comes with pain, but the right kind.)
It does mean I am no longer beating my head against walls that will not be moved by my brain splatter.
Radical acceptance might look like defeat, but I’m finding it brings a different kind of power that is keeping me in the fight.
On the last day of the first week of my return to school/work, I didn’t cry once. This felt like progress. Educator friends and I posted funnynotfunny comments on FB about using crying as a metric in setting our annual professional goals.
This is how we are going to get through. Community. Empathy. Humor. Truth-telling. It’s how people have always gotten through hard times, though some of us have lived such fortunate lives thus far that we haven’t had to learn that until now.
My colleague friends and I will all write official goals that won’t matter much to the real work we’ll be doing this year. That we’ll have to do that doesn’t really matter. What matters is creating real strategies for meeting this time we’re in.
There’s a lot I don’t know any more, but these are my goals, driven not by any set of data but by what I need to do good for those I serve:
Recently, I read Courtney Carver’s Project 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Really Is So Much More. If you’ve been with me since way way back (2010, probably), you might remember when I first tried Project 333, in which you chose only 33 items of clothing to wear for 3 months. It’s a project/challenge that dramatically changed my relationship with clothing and shopping for clothing (and other stuff, too). I highly recommend it.
Clicking on one of the links in the book took me to The Renewal Workshop, a company that takes old clothing from partner companies and refreshes it for resell. Clicking around on their site, I found a statement about their company values (here and here), and how they try to use those to guide their work.
Organizational values isn’t a new concept, and I’ve participated in the crafting of more missions/vision/values statements than I care to recall. However, I do know that when these documents are actively used in decision-making, they can be powerful. And powerful is something I’m longing to feel these days.
For most of the summer, I’ve been dreading the return to work. I have felt powerless and hopeless and probably about 10 other kinds of -less. Deciding to renovate my home office (which I mentioned here) was a small step to reclaiming some power and agency.
As I’ve worked in the room, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of having a set of guiding values, and how I can have visual reminders of them in this space.
That’s my grandmother at 12, and also at 76 (at my wedding reception). As you might be able to infer, she was a bit of a pistol. When I was growing up, I thought she was the most social person I knew. She always had people around, and she was always doing something fun. She seemed happiest at the center of our large pack of family. Although I adored her, I didn’t think we were much alike.
What I’ve realized, now that I am as old as she was when I first knew her, is that she was, perhaps, as introverted as I am. And that I love my people as deeply as she did, even if I express it differently. What I knew, growing up, was that if I ever needed a place to go, she would take me in. I–and anyone I brought with me–would always be welcome. She was our connector and our safety net.
Probably because I am highly introverted, I don’t have a wide circle of people. But the people I have matter more than anything else to me. Many are family, and some are friends. Some are people I work with. I want fostering and caring for meaningful connection to be at the center of my life. Because I am introverted and my job requires a lot of interaction with others, this can be a challenge for me, but as I enter a new school year I want to place connection with others at the center of my decision making. I want to think about who and what I am saying yes and no to in the choices I make, and which choices will allow me to strengthen valuable connections with others. I want the people I love to know me as someone who will always take them in.
This is a value I have struggled to live by. Living when, where, and how I have, I’ve learned that it is easy to throw things away. To care for them carelessly, knowing that cheap replacements are readily available. For a whole host of reasons, I don’t want that kind of relationship with resources. Instead, I want to care well for the people and things that are mine to care for.
This is from a quilt that was pieced hand-stitched by my great-grandmother. She came to this country from Germany in the early 1900’s. When I look at this quilt, it’s clear to me that she used what she had, that she didn’t have much, and that she also took care to arrange her materials as pleasingly as she was able. I can see attention to line and color. I see craftsmanship and labor. It an unfinished piece—there is no batting in it. I long thought I would finish it and use it, but I don’t want to destroy it, and honestly, it is too fragile to use as a blanket.
Part of good stewardship, I think, is determining how to use things. Simply preserving them isn’t enough, and in my line of work (library services), particularly, there is often tension between using and preserving. This unfinished quilt is my great-grandmother’s art, and I don’t think art should sit hidden in drawers. What use can it serve there? I know that displaying it, where it will be exposed to light and dust, will shorten its life, but I did some research on how to display quilts in ways that minimize damage to them. I think hanging it here, as it is, strikes the right balance between using and preserving.
This, I think, is how to be a good steward of the resources (things, people, time, money) entrusted to me: seeing value, considering purposes and uses, and finding solutions to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Health is the foundation of everything, right? Without physical, mental, emotional, and social health, we cannot do and be all that we might. In its extreme, we cannot live.
The larger plant I’ve placed on my desk is a peace lily. The first time I married, a friend gave me one as a gift. She said it was the perfect symbol for marriage: a plant that produces beautiful blooms, thrives in multiple conditions, and withstands drought. I want a healthier marriage with work. I want to be more like a peace lily. I hope the need to care, in the most concrete of ways, for the health of other living things, will remind me to value the health of myself and others in the choices I make about how to work.
I believe that we are all creative beings and need positive outlets for making and doing. I believe there is value in creating for the sake of creating—both for the creator and for those around them. When we cannot create, our health and relationships suffer. Creativity helps us find solutions and solve problems and see possibilities. Creativity is joy, and we need joy as much as we need love and safety. It’s not a frill, an extra, or a nice-to-have. It’s essential, especially in times such as the one we are living through.
I have adorned the walls with art made by those I love most (including me!), and my favorites are the ones my children made when they were young. Many (all?) of us are born artists (a term I’m using very loosely), but the world has a way of killing that part of us. I want to make time for creativity in my life and work, and I want to protect and support it for the children and adults I serve.
As a life-long people-pleaser and do-gooder, developing, communicating, and living by boundaries is an on-going challenge. When we suddenly shifted to working from home last spring, I worked all over my house, and I came to realize that it wasn’t good for me. Home had once been a sanctuary from work, a place where work wasn’t. And then work was everywhere, all the time. Home lost some of its meaning for me.
I’m appreciating the opportunity to work toward better integration of work and home. I don’t want work to be something so depleting that I need a completely separate place to recover from it. Because of working from home, I can no longer use that strategy (which, as longtime readers here know, wasn’t really working for me, anyway). Setting better boundaries is the way to do that. This year, I plan to limit work to this one room with a door. To help me remember the upside of boundaries–that they protect us and those around us, spur creativity, and allow us to say “yes” to the people and projects that align with our values–I painted the closet door pink. Color is fun! Boundaries, done right, allow for more fun, and a lot of other good stuff, too. (Also, too much white is boring and sterile.)
White space is an important design principle. It helps us see what’s important. Space is the yin to connection’s yang. Both are necessary in our work. I need space to be healthy, to create, to care for people and things; without those things, connection isn’t really possible.
When I left work in March, I left a desk full of clutter–papers, stacks of books, a bag of Valentine’s Day treats, and more. It’s all still there. Clearly, I didn’t really need all of that stuff to do my job. This week, I went back to my office to get the things I’ll want or need to work from home. The things I felt I’d really need fit into one box.
To renovate this room, I first cleared everything out of it, so that I could be purposeful about what I allowed back in.
Deciding what to bring back and what to release was hard! It wasn’t the practical stuff that tripped me up. It was all the meaningful stuff–photos, family things, art. It was a good exercise, though, to really think about what matters.
The pandemic, in its (horrible, hard, often cruel) way, is providing a similar kind of clearing out. So many things that filled my work hours have been stripped away. Of course, I don’t have much say in some of the things that remain or that have been added, but with the things I do get to choose, I’m appreciating the opportunity to consider what needs to be part of the work and what doesn’t, and how to make space to see clearly which is which.
For a few years, I taught in a cinderblock room completely surrounded by hallway, with no windows or skylights, which meant that I had no exposure to natural light during the day. So often, when I emerged from it to go home, I was surprised by the light I found; I’d have had no sense of the weather all day and felt startled, almost, if it were especially bright with sun or moody with clouds. It was terrible, being that cut off from the natural world day after day after day, especially in winter when the sun would already be setting as I walked to my car.
I painted the walls of this room white to maximize brightness. This south-facing window gets sun for much of the day. As I work this year, I want to remain light (in all senses of that word) and to seek enlightenment. I want to see things clearly, shine light on truth, and join my light with others who are doing the same. I want all of us to stop working under artificial light that keeps us out of touch with what’s really happening in the outside world.
The value of this room renovation isn’t really in the room. Sure, it’s a nice space to look at and be in, but it was the process of thinking about the room and its purposes that will mean more to me (and, I hope, others) over time.
Every year as summer wanes, I go back to work resolved to engage with it in a different way. I promise myself that I will keep getting exercise, that I will keep eating real food, that I will devote more time to what is important and less to what is urgent, that I will carve out time for friends and family and creative work, and that I will just not let it all get to me.
So far, every year, I have failed to fulfill such resolutions.
This year feels different. There are two sides to everything, and one side of this time in which so much is collapsing is fear: economic, social, physical, and political threats are all around us. On the other side, though, is opportunity. When so much is gone, changed, and changing, it is easier to let go of what was and try to figure out what can be.
What this country has been asking of its educational system and its educators has been untenable for a long time. Having that truth laid bare over the past few months has released something in me; I can no longer pretend (to myself or anyone else) that we can–or even should–do all that has been asked of us, which gives me permission to let myself off the hook for trying to.
The root cause of the failures of our educational system extend far beyond the system itself; nothing that I, personally, do is going to change or fix that. While I believe to the center of my core in the value of a strong public education system and its necessity to the well-being of our democracy and its citizens–that belief is the reason I entered the system and have never been able to leave it–I can see that the system is crumbling and all of our many band-aids are failing to save it. Coming to accept this truth has been not unlike the experience of losing faith. The despair has been real. But also: This kind of letting go feels freeing in a way that I don’t yet have words to express.
The question, then, is: What to do now? This system, flawed as it is, is the system our children have right now, today. They only have one childhood, and it is now. Many of those with means are opting their kids out of it, but many families remain. Many educators remain, too, out of our own economic necessity. What does this mean going forward, to know that vulnerable people are depending upon us in a system that is broken and we feel (probably are) powerless to fix?
It doesn’t mean that those of us who remain simply give up and go through the motions and take what we can get. I mean, it can, and I’ve certainly known educators who have chosen that route. (We’re all human. We are not heroes or saints. This is a thing humans do in response to threat, defeat, and hopelessness. They do what they have to do to survive. We should acknowledge that reality so that we can better mitigate it.)
For me, it means focusing on what agency I have and exercising it. I am under no illusion that this set of values I’ve laid out here is going to magically transform my life or my experiences in the coming year. I am sure the coming year will contain a good deal of struggle. But I am all out of fucks to give about some things that used to drive me: pleasing my bosses, building a career, preserving norms and “right” ways of doing things, reforming the system. Those things no longer feel relevant. That opens up a lot of space for me to choose different actions than I might have in the past, and this set of values will be the lens through which I make such choices.
I believe we are all, no matter what kind of life we’re living and what privileges we do or do not have, at a crossroad. I’m going to do my best to choose a path paved with love, for others and myself, and to be, in whatever ways I can, light and space that connects and cares for others in ways that are healthy for us all. I don’t have to save the world, but there are things I can do to make my little corner of it better than it might otherwise be. Maybe if we all did that, some of the threats barreling toward us would start to change course?
I just deleted the Facebook app from my phone again, for the third or fourth time since March. I see that I’m not unlike a person in an abusive relationship who keeps going back because they want to believe that this time it can be different.
What I want, in this time of social isolation, is connection. Over the summer I’ve dabbled in Instagram, but I’m connected to far more people on FB, and I miss seeing their posts. So I go back. I change my rules for engagement. I set time limits. I unfollow. I’m also not unlike an alcoholic who thinks they can drink if they only drink beer and not the hard stuff, or only on the weekends, or only after 5:00.
Every time I reinstall, before too long, I’m mindlessly scrolling for too many minutes of my day (which is, you know, my life). I’m getting angry with people I don’t even know. (Too many of my friends have friends who can be real dicks.) Or about things I can’t do anything about. I’m feeling defeated and sad. (These are rational responses to the world right now–at least, they are according to the therapist I used to see, and that was before this freaking pandemic–and therefore not necessarily a reason to stay away. We should know what’s real, including how our fellow humans are seeing things and feeling about them.)
And then, something snaps and I realize I have to again cut off easy access to my abuser, to my drug, to this thing that can make me feel so shitty (about the world, my fellow humans, the future, myself) and enriches a guy who I think really doesn’t care much about anything other than making his massive fortune more massive. This time, it was a comment in response to a post about the pandemic in which an analogy was made to airline crashes and how many daily plane crashes it would take for us to have the same death toll as we currently have from Covid. A young person made a comment about how many people die of other illnesses each year and how illness and death are just part of life and how we have to accept that and get on with living.
Maybe I snapped because earlier in the day I’d had a conversation with a friend, who shared that an acquaintance who is a gerontologist and the mother of a young child recently voiced that we have our priorities all wrong because we’re not taking care of our children and our elderly have already had their lives to live and the ending of their lives would be the lesser loss. She wants her kid back in school.
Maybe I snapped because a few weeks ago, my parents and I finally agreed that we would not see each other this summer (which means not this fall/winter, either), and I’m so tired of feeling sad when I see others posting pictures of visits with their elderly parents. I thought we could visit safely if we met outside and kept our distance and wore masks, but they just didn’t want to take the risk. “We would love to see you, but we also want to protect you. We hate the idea of what you’d have to live with if one of us got sick because of seeing you. We don’t want you to have to carry that.” And, of course, they also don’t want to die a painful, protracted, and isolated death.
Jesus. Those last three sentences. This is where we are. This is where we are.
At any rate, I snapped. And deleted. And I don’t feel sad and defeated.
I feel better.
(Image from Courtney Carver’s bemorewithless. I like Courtney’s take on a lot of things.)
Sign me up for more time, freedom, and energy, so I can maybe do something to make this world (or, at the very least, my world) better, rather than drowning in it.